JERUSALEM — After three days of clashes at one of Jerusalem’s main holy sites, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Wednesday to clamp down on Palestinian stone throwers and impose harsher measures to restore calm.
On a tour of some of the main flash points in and around Jerusalem, Netanyahu said the new steps would include giving security personnel wider powers to deal with stone throwers, imposing tougher legal penalties and introducing fines for perpetrators and their families.
The unrest, which started Sunday at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, sparked violent incidents elsewhere in the city, resulting in the death of a Jewish man whose vehicle was pelted with rocks.
In a briefing with journalists, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called the stone throwing “terrorism” and said it would not be tolerated in other cities around the world.
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Israel had inflamed the situation by attempting to “turn Jerusalem into an exclusively Jewish city” and erase Palestinian history. He said the clashes at the mosque were the worst since 1969.
Barkat denied that Israel wanted to change the status quo at the sensitive holy site, which is revered by both Muslims and Jews. However, hours after the latest round of violence broke out Sunday, Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel visited the complex with a group of Jewish activists. Ariel has caused controversy in the past by calling for a Jewish temple to replace the mosque.
During the Jewish High Holidays, which began Sunday, Jewish visitors flock to the Western Wall, which runs adjacent to the mosque compound and is designated for Jewish prayer.
Some also visit the place where Islam’s Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque stand — an area called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews. The Jewish visitors are usually granted entry but forbidden to pray there.
Omar Kiswani, director of the al-Aqsa mosque, said last week that a request had been made to Israeli police to close the site to non-Muslim visitors in an attempt to avoid trouble. He also said that Israel is seeking to change the status of the site, which since 1967 has been administered by the Waqf Islamic trust under the auspices of Jordan.
“The Israeli police should be limited to security. That is their job under the status quo. The Waqf used to be in charge of tourism, and we call for it to be that way again,” Kiswani said.
He said there was no problem with non-Muslim tourists visiting the site, including Jews, who come from around the world. “It’s the Jewish extremists who come here that cause trouble,” Kiswani said.
Over the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in observant Jewish visitors, some of whom seek to build a third temple at the site. On Jewish holidays, the number of religious Jewish visitors to the compound can reach up to 1,000 a day, according to the Waqf.
This week’s clashes at the mosque drew criticism from around the Arab world, with accusations that Israeli police had damaged the centuries-old building. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, one of the few Arab leaders to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, threatened to cut ties if the unrest continues.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who oversees the Western Wall, said, however, that the unrest came from those “who call themselves believers” but incite racial hatred against Jews. He said that molotov cocktails and pipe bombs had been hoarded inside the mosque in preparation for a “well-planned attack on Jewish worshipers praying at the Western Wall during the Jewish New Year.”